For the love of Koshari
On the old campus there used to be this guy whose office was down the hall from mine. He taught American History, he loved Egypt, he loved Egyptian food, and every day he got take away from Koshari Tahrir. Seriously, every day. Now Koshari Tahrir is a fantastic place, but eating koshari, like falling in love, is a group activity. You can’t do it alone; or at least you shouldn’t.
But my American friend, he flew solo. This had its consequences. In faculty meetings he used to wonder aloud why none of the students ever passed by during his afternoon office hours—although this was not a mystery to the rest of us. It got to the point where every semester I’d check to see if he had a UTR schedule; if he did, I’d take MWs. Eventually his wife made him move back to Illinois. He always wondered why. Not me.
Koshari is that most revered of Egyptian specialties, probably because it marries four carbohydrates in one dish. If that’s not food porn, I don’t know what is. No wonder we like it so much. Forget Zuhra and her five husbands, koshari is something you can really sink your teeth into. The only thing is, it’s not Egyptian.
Rice comes from China; macaroni, from Italy. Tomatoes originated in the Americas, as did the chilies that go into the shatta. Those arch-imperialists, the Romans, gave us chickpeas. Okay, lentils are ours. As are onions, especially, evidently, the fried ones. Tahia Masr! But putting it all together into a package? Nope. It’s an import.
Before you raise your flag or write nasty letters to the editor (both of which I encourage by the way), ask yourself this: What does “koshari” mean in Arabic? Uh huh, that’s right, nothing. Why? Because it’s not an Arabic word. It’s Hindi, khichri, from the Sanskrit, khicca, meaning a dish of rice and lentils. Case closed pretty much. Our koshari is an Indian street food brought to Egypt by the British army in the late nineteenth century because, apparently, the Martini-Henry rifle was not enough.
This type of culinary imperialism is not uncommon. That Thai dish you like, satay, comes from the French sauté. Curry—which, by the way, is more popular in England than fish and chips—from the Tamil, kari. Hamburgers are named after the German port of Hamburg. And hot dogs, well, that’s just weird, but I do feel another column coming on.
The whole story is rather difficult to believe. They say an army travels on its stomach. Yet what kind of fire power can be produced by soldiers stuffed with four kinds of carbs? Well, a certain kind, yes, but not one that is normally very useful in battlefield conditions. It puts a whole new meaning to the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” Then again, who knows, platoons of British soldiers hopped up on pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, onions and hot sauce? Maybe this was a pretty good strategy—for the Indians.
As for Egyptian food, sadly, it does seem as if the colonizers have struck again, but don’t despair, the empire strikes back.Ever heard of Tutankhamen’s revenge? Just ask a certain happily married couple in Illinois.